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Tupac’s estate is in a fight over an iconic album cover and its NFT

Mike Coppola
Snoop, Treach, YG , and T.I. perform at Tupac Shakur's induction to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2017. 
Published

The work of late rapper Tupac Shakur, long mired in complications over ownership rights, is involved in yet another legal entanglement. The latest revolves around an historic piece of Tupac Shakur album art.

Compton, California artist Ronald “Riskie” Brent created the original cover art for Shakur’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (recorded as the character “Makaveli”), which was released two months after Shakur’s death in 1996. The timing of the album and its somewhat prophetic cover, which was approved by Shakur and depicts him as deceased and crucified, burnished its value as a symbol of the artist’s legacy. More than a quarter of a century later, in May 2022, that visual component of the rapper’s prolific output went up for auction, along with an associated non-fungible token (NFT).

Ronald “Riskie” Brent/Death Row Records via Zelus press release
The cover art for Tupac Shakur’s 1996 album <i>Makaveli</i> aka<i> The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory</i>

Shakur’s estate, however, maintains that the art falls under the umbrella of the late rapper’s property. That assertion was made clear in a letter sent in May by Amaru Entertainment, the company founded by Shakur’s mother to manage her late son’s work, to Heritage Auctions, one of the organizers of the auction.

Since then, the two parties have been engaged in a flurry of legal filings designed to determine who owns the the art in question.

The dispute over the most famous Tupac illustration is just beginning

“Amaru, as successor-in-interest of Death Row Records (DRR), owns all of Tupac’s DRR releases and recordings, including…all of the artwork created in connection with those releases and recordings,” reads the letter sent by lawyers on behalf of Shakur’s estate.

In spite of that, the auction moved forward.

On June 13, five days before the auction bids were due, attorneys for Brent and NFT distribution company Zelus filed court documents indicating the artwork had in fact been previously sold to a private owner and subsequently purchased by Zelus in October 2021 for an undisclosed sum.

In response, lawyers for Shakur’s estate made their own legal claim to the work. “The painting was created by a DRR employee (Brent) in the regular course of his job duties at DRR,” they stated in a June 15 filing, invoking the work-for-hire doctrine under the US Copyright Act. “Therefore, the painting belonged to DRR and now belongs to Amaru. … [Zelus and Heritage Auctions] have no right, title or interest in the painting.”

The Heritage Auctions website nonetheless states that the art piece, along with its associated NFT, was sold to a winning bidder on June 18 for $212,500.

Shakur’s complicated estate

Legal troubles have dogged the estate of Shakur from the beginning. Before her death, his mother, Afeni Shakur, fought to retain ownership of his numerous unreleased music tracks. And now Shakur’s sister, Sekyiwa Shakur, is suing the executor of Afeni’s estate over the profits of Tupac’s works.

Death Row Records, now under the guidance of Snoop Dogg, has meanwhile gone through several ownership changes over the years, which has complicated the management of Shakur’s large catalog of work.

None of the parties mentioned in the Makaveli art dispute have responded to questions from Quartz about the case. In court documents, lawyers for Shakur’s estate claim the purpose of their lawsuit “is to recover the painting so that it is restored to its rightful owner and can be maintained and preserved as part of Shakur’s legacy.”

That will be up to the legal system to untangle. Meanwhile, the amount the art was auctioned for could end up being far less than the attorneys’ fees and final court judgment that will sort it out.

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